Ants in Winter

Her colleagues expected Navaneetha to speak a few words at Sugathan’s sendoff. They also expected her voice to break when she spoke.

She had been silent since morning. She was doodling on the pad before her when her superior officer wanted clarification of a notice on the file.

The peon said, ‘You are wanted.’ Her pen fell from her nervous fingers.

‘Miss Navaneetha, are all the urgent papers ready?’ ‘Yes, I finished them yesterday.’

The officer might have thought that the grief of separation may have caused her to shirk her responsibilities. Navaneetha tried to smile. She was disturbed once more.

As she was returning to her seat, her colleague, Marykutty said, ‘There are ants on your sari.’

She was shocked. She twisted and turned. Not one or two, there were five or six ants. She picked them up, dropped them on the floor and ground them under her sandals. Marykutty said, ‘It’s just a few ants, Neetha!’

She could not suppress her anger. She had worn the sari that morning. She had taken it out of the innermost section of her clothes box. There were ants even on that. Ants were creeping all over her.

‘Your sari is beautiful,’ Marykutty said, ‘You look your best in it.’ ‘Thank you.’

‘The primrose color enhances the bloom on your face.’ Her face flushed.

In the afternoon, everyone was getting ready for the sendoff.

The party, the speeches and the farewells had to be over before five o’ clock. It was difficult to waste time after that—time that was to be used for leisure and for the journey back home.

Contrary to everyone’s expectation, Navaneetha did not sing. She was famous as a singer among them.

The chief officer, in the middle of eating, asked her. ‘Aren’t you singing, Navaneetha?’

Sing! She was amused. She was done with singing. There was no place in her mind for the sad memories of the dusk when music had left her. Ants swarmed in the inner recesses of her mind.

In a weak moment, she asked Neelima, who was seated on her

right.

‘Is there a way to get rid of ants?’

Neelima was concentrating on her ice-cream cup. Sugathan was

giving his farewell speech. Licking her ice cream, Neelima said, ‘If they trouble you that much, set fire to your home.’ ‘Neelima, this is not a joke.’

‘I know.’

Navaneetha felt suffocated. To forget Neelima’s cruel joke, Navaneetha took a butter biscuit from the plate before her.

Putting her cup down, Neelima turned to face her friend. She took care not to crease her brand new sari.

‘Neetha, why should we suffer the bite of creepy crawlies like ants? Either burn them or spread poison. If there are many inmates in the house, the latter method will not work.’

‘But, Neelima, how can I burn them? They are all over the place. By the side of the walls, under cleaned vessels, under the bed, between the intricate weaves of the rush mat . . . ’

By this time the reception hall was emptying. Neelima rose to her feet. There was as yet no solution to Navaneetha’s problem. Neelima said, ‘Let us think of pleasanter things and savor the coolness and sweetness of ice cream.’

Navaneetha sped out. As she walked fast, she also checked for more ants that might be lurking in her sari. She twisted and turned as she examined her sari folds and her pallu.

By this time she had already reached the shade of the Rajamalli tree that adorned the wayside near the gate like a peacock preening with spread feathers.

There were more people than usual at the bus stop. She was comforted. She was not late. The first bus was full. Good! She would wait peacefully until the next bus came. The time she spent in the bus shelter was a time of rest. There were no acquaintances there. That too was great. The next bus would be along only in about twenty minutes. Where else would she get this twenty-minute break?

The bus shelter was built by the Y’s Men’s Club of the city. It was a little more than two feet high. So no one attempted to stand in the shelter. She stood a little away from the shelter eyeing the green canopy above her.

‘Hasn’t your bus arrived, Navaneetha?’ She started and turned around.

It was Sugathan.

‘I thought you’d left.’ ‘That’s what I too thought.’

She should have said goodbye to Sugathan. Embarrassed, she said, ‘I was in a hurry to reach home.’ ‘I know.’

‘Will you come back to this town?’

Sugathan looked deeply at her. He smiled as if to remind her that her question was a mistake.

‘When I get promoted, I will return.’

She nodded. All colleagues who were transferred said this. That was their dream. Often it wouldn’t happen. She sighed deeply. She felt that her life was like that of an animal chained on a short leash.

She gazed at the green branches to rid herself of the ordeal of an uncomfortable day.

The leaves were asleep.

When will the bees reach here?

She saw Sugathan walking away along the road. Now he was barely visible. She could still see the heaviness of the red and black bag he carried. Gradually it faded. Dust arose from the road where automobiles raced each other.

She was not in the queue. She hated waiting in a queue. The winding curves of the queue straightened. It was late. She must get on the next bus.

When she reached home, her husband would definitely ask, ‘Shekhar, who works in your office, got here by the first bus.’

She recognized the indifference that spread like white ants on the walls of her mind.

A fat lady in the queue asked her:

‘Why are you late today?’ She smiled in reply.

The branches of the rajamalli tree swayed above her. The sunlight kissed the flower buds of the rajamalli in farewell before departing. A lot of dead leaves rained around them.

‘Why are you late?’ She didn’t look at the person who questioned her. She thought angrily, ‘How many people are there in this bus stop?

They are all going home, aren’t they? Aren’t they all late? What’s so special about Navaneetha?’

When she saw the lines of ants making a beeline to suck the honey from the golden-hued flowers that lay scattered on the road, she stepped aside.

They are everywhere. At home and outside, on the paths and streets, in the office and in the bus shelter!

Neelima’s words echoed in her ears.

‘Burn the house!’ To burn a house for escape from ants!

At last her bus arrived. The house was ages away from the office. She managed to procure a seat. The dusk came earlier than usual. There was not even the light of a glowworm in the pitch darkness outside. Coconut trees and arecanaut trees stood guard along the road. The houses on either side had every door and window sealed.

She didn’t know that the moon was waning. She didn’t know anything now. She couldn’t know anything. She did not know the blueness of the sky or the varied hues of flowers or the sweetness of the dawn. From the smells of the kitchen and the sound of vessels banging in the kitchen, she raced to the office that shook with the clacks of typewriters. The ants threatened her and raced in a tiny circle.

The ants first appeared in her house in the morning when a cool breeze wafted in from the mountain ranges in the east. It was a Sunday when she wanted to snuggle under the blankets for a while longer. But the Sundays were not hers. It was a day filled with visitors in her house that had many members. How could she sleep when her unmarried sisters-in-law, her mother-in-law and the wife of her husband’s brother called her by opening creaking doors and banging pots and pans?

When she walked into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes tiredly, the ants swarmed about her feet and raced over it. They were lying in wait for her on the other side of the threshold.

Her mother-in-law muttered. ‘If you go to bed without cleaning up the kitchen, this is what will happen.’

She thought aloud that when she cleaned the vessels and the kitchen and closed the kitchen door at eleven thirty the night before,

there was not a scrap of food there. Along the line where the walls met the floor, they marched like an army. There were many types of them. There were ants of red, black and grey colors. They were preparing for a war with her, armed with arsenals of rice and well-stocked ladders of honey. Until she burnt them and swept away their corpses, she wouldn’t know peace.

At first it was only in the early morning hours that they fashioned intricate arrangements of their military force against her. But now, there was no clear schedule for attacks. There would be ants nestling under a vessel she had cleaned just five minutes back. They bit her and left angry red marks on her skin.

She told her husband, ‘We must find a way to get rid of ants.’ He was reading a newspaper. Behind it, he said,

‘Ants! Is that so strange? Are you the only one who is working in the kitchen?’

After that, she didn’t complain at all. She tried to devise means to escape from the ants. She hunted them all the time with broom and mops, towels dipped in kerosene and blazing torches. In the meanwhile she slaved in the kitchen and in her office. She found lesser time to sleep. She slept only between twelve at night and three in the morning, barely three hours of sleep. The ants that stuck to her body invaded her bed at nights refusing to be dislodged by scrubbing and by her baths.

She endured it in the hope that when the winter was over, they would disappear. The ants would not be able to survive the severe heat of summer. They would then take refuge in the white ant hills.

But the winter hadn’t run its course. The cool breeze wafted over her. When she alighted from the bus, it was quite dark. She looked for her husband or his brother at the bus stop. No, no one had come there. If her family had no fears for her safety, why should she have any? She walked along the dark path. A little away, she saw light peeping through the curtains of the living room. She heard the roar of the TV when she opened the gate. Apparently none had remembered to switch on the light in the porch. She climbed the steps and tried to push the door. It was locked.

She was close to tears. She walked back to the porch to press the calling bell. She forgot to lift her finger from the switch. With a roar, the door opened.

‘My ear drum has burst,’ her husband said.

Was the sound of the bell louder than the roar of the TV?

The members of the family, enjoying the music recital, looked at her with displeasure. She walked to the inner chamber but not before she noticed that her son and daughter who had to study for their forthcoming examination were totally engrossed in the shouting, gyrating musicians in the screen. She did not say a word to her children who were enthralled by the serpent like curls, the ripe lips and the shining, sharp blaze of the white teeth of the main singer.

As she stepped inside, her husband asked, ‘Are you planning to serve tea with dinner today?’

Without waiting to take off her sari she walked to the kitchen. She didn’t want to wear her favorite sari in the kitchen.

The ants had conquered the kitchen, the vessels, the washbasin and the taps. They were celebrating on the leftover of the lunch in the dirty plates. The ants rallied before her in a triumphant march-past. They were robbing the kitchen mercilessly and inexorably.

She switched on both the lights. By this time the roses on her sari were attacked by canker. She made tea on the gas stove patiently suffering the ant attack. She poured tea in five cups and took it to the living room.

The roars had died on the TV. The musician had disappeared. In their place were undulating waves, birds who fluttered over rocks and sand and waves—she heard the flapping of their wings very clearly. She saw a bit of the blue sky she had lost. The birds flew away to the shore. They rubbed their beaks in love.

She had no time to lose. She went back to the kitchen. The ants had blocked the outlet pipe of the washbasin. They had made a suspension bridge of the gas tube that connected the cylinder and the stove.

She threw down the broom and took up the kerosene drenched cloth and the blazing torch. She was disgusted by the sound of the ants burning in the flames.

line.

Beneath the closed door, they kept on coming in a never-ending

The torch was almost dying out. The flame that was not fed leapt

to grab the edge of her sari. She watched silently. By that time she had turned into an anthill. The golden snakes that put out forked tongues to lick the ants, wound around her.

“Shishirathile Urumbukal” (Mounathinte Naanarthangal. Ed. N.K. Raveendran. Thrissur: Haritham Books, 1993: 41-50), translated by Hema Nair R.

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P. VATSALA

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